Bolivia’s Challenge: Making Coca Palatable

Villa Tunari, Bolivia — Since taking office seven years ago, President Evo Morales has tried to persuade the world that he has no tolerance for cocaine and that Bolivia’s thousands of acres of coca plants can be dedicated to such traditional uses as fighting fatigue as well as whipping up wholesome treats like sweet breads and coca puffed snacks.

The longtime leader of Bolivia’s biggest coca growers union, Morales has a personal stake in seeing the destigmatization of the crop. He and his fellow growers say they want to build a healthy market for coca-based products, despite the belief of U.S. officials that most of Bolivia’s crop ends up as narcotics

Yet a stubborn problem keeps getting in the way of the president’s grand plan: While coca tea is popular, most people seem to find other coca-based food unappetizing.

The processing plant he built in 2008 with a $900,000 donation from his late friend, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and other such endeavors have not prospered.

The now-idle factory in Villa Tunari, in the heart of Bolivia’s coca-growing Chapare region, churned out a million bags of baked coca treats in 2011 and 2012 and also made candies and liquors using the tough, bitter-tasting plant. To enhance edibility, workers added sweeteners, corn and cheese flavoring.

But to the chagrin of the government and the union that runs the plant, the coca food market refused to grow. Just about the only people who would eat the treats were 30,000 schoolchildren in the Chapare valley whose school districts bought cheese-flavored coca puff snacks from the plant and gave them away for free.

“The truth is, first they were hard,” said 12-year-old Mario Justiniano, who had tried a coca puff. “The coca tasted a little strong, but a little later they got better and became tastier.”